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North Carolina lawsuits challenging same-day registration change can proceed, judge says

 Two signs read "Democracy, voting rights now!" and "Register to vote here."
Josh Sullivan
A voter registration table was set up at the Every Child NC rally on the Halifax Mall outside the North Carolina Legislature.

Two lawsuits challenging how North Carolina legislators recently tightened same-day voter registration can continue, even though state election officials have recently made adjustments to address a judge's constitutional concerns.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder refused on Tuesday to dismiss the suits filed by several voter advocacy groups and a voter, rejecting motions from defendants who include Republican legislative leaders and the State Board of Elections.

The lawsuits target a 2023 law that changes when election officials can disqualify a vote cast by someone who registered the same day during the 17-day early voting period.

With over 100,000 new registrants having sought same-day registration in North Carolina during each of the last two presidential general elections, adjustments in the same-day rules could affect close statewide elections this fall.

A provision of the new law stated that same-day applicants would be removed from voter rolls if election officials sent them a single piece of mail that came back as undeliverable. The previous law required two pieces of undeliverable mail. The groups who sued said the new procedure would increase risks that voters would be disenfranchised by paperwork errors or mail mishaps.

Early this year, Schroeder ruled that the provision was likely unconstitutional on due process grounds. In a Jan. 21 injunction, he said the change couldn't take effect without administrative protections that would allow an applicant to challenge their vote from being disqualified.

In response a week later, the state board sent county election offices an updated memorandum that amended same-day registration rules so as to create a formal way to appeal being removed from the voter rolls after one undeliverable mailer. The state board's rule alterations were used in the March 5 primary.

Attorneys for the Republican lawmakers cited the memo last month in a brief asking for one of the lawsuits to be dismissed, saying "there is no longer a live case or controversy that the Court can redress."

But Schroeder noted that under state law, rules the State Board of Elections rewrites in response to a court decision are temporary. In this case, the changes expire in early 2025.

Schroeder acknowledged that it's likely the General Assembly will pass a law to make the state board's rules permanent. But for now, the rules remain temporary, he wrote, and legislators haven't shown that the "interim rule moots the complaint."

In separate orders denying dismissals of the lawsuits, the judge, who was nominated to the bench by President George W. Bush, also wrote that the plaintiffs had legal standing to sue or that their allegations surpassed a low plausibility threshold.

At least three lawsuits have been filed challenging portions of the wide-ranging voting law that the General Assembly enacted last October over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto.

The third lawsuit, filed by the national and state Democratic parties, challenges a handful of other provisions and was part of the January preliminary injunction. Dismissal motions in this case are pending.

Schroeder addressed the other two lawsuits on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the judge also set a June 3 trial date for one of these lawsuits, filed by Democracy North Carolina, the North Carolina Black Alliance and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina.

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